In regard to commercial photography it does seem that with the latest from ASMP and APA that things are definitely getting worse before they get better. With Omnicom’s announcement that they will no longer pay advances and are passing liability to their clients the expectation is that photographers will be asked to provide banking services to multibillion dollar corporations. Insane. Sad. Make no mistake, this is a war on creatives– agency and photographer both. One form of leverage is to deny copyright (registering the work immediately) until payment is received. But this is usually not a big stick until legal action is taken and the reality is that without significant capital and LOC it is not a sustainable business model for most. Another might be to start each job by setting up direct communication with the client– working with the agency– and arrange better payment terms. We’ve actually done this on a few jobs already in the past few years. It’s definitely not ideal, but with a decent client it’s far better than being a victim of a victim– the ad agency in the middle– and often far better. Not that different from corporate annual report projects that are done in house.

Fine art photographers will continue selling prints into the art market once this downturn abates a bit. There will always be weddings. The danger here is with the advertising and editorial shooters. So here we are with a collapsing economy, more photogs than ever before in history, fewer jobs and what remains will be paying less and slow paying too boot. Shoot me now. 

Yet as many know the Chinese symbol for crisis also stands for opportunity and you can bet there are plenty of smart shooters out there figuring out ways to survive and thrive in this downturn. What exactly those opportunities are might include pushing into markets with less competition, exploring other revenue streams such as print sales, products such as t-shirts, services such as consulting, new markets in stock, and so on. I’d love to hear the new ideas that are percolating. With the internet and social networking this is certainly the time to build the myth and keep your name alive, at least within the photo community. Every bit helps.

The truth is that many will not survive and there will be a winnowing of the field. There will be many turning to other or related careers and photography will be their passion on weekends. Nothing wrong with this, in fact if another job was satisfying to someone enough to make a living at it, then their time with photography may be even more rewarding. But many will be lost, caught in between the crushing forces of corporate desperation and a sea of competition driving prices down. My first bit of advice is to cut your overhead, today. Don’t wait. Keep everything tight and to a minimum.

Second, what has held true forever and will continue to be true is that those with a reputation, a brand if you will, and capital will ultimately survive and grow stronger. If you don’t have the reputation to rise above the crowd that is your first priority. Shoot great work and get it out there and build awareness for your work. This also means the age-old forces of supply and demand are still valid. There is an over supply of photographers, talented photographers, both established and new, and the new ones are young and hungry and ready to kill their mothers to make it. These young ones have not been educated properly in the power of saying no and respecting the trade practices that sustained us so well for so long.  They don’t see the benefits yet, they can’t, they are too busy trying to break in and their schools just did not care to explain how it works– worked. It’s really beside the point and probably too late for that. I do know some older shooters who believe the power of copyright will win in the end. But there is a whole new generation who believe information wants to be free. Yet the other half of Stewart Brand’s famous observation was that information also wants to be expensive. The information that is specialized, that is branded, than no one else has is the expensive stuff. Be special and eventually you’ll be needed and needed badly as the only one who can do the job. 

Yes there will be fewer opportunities for quality, for unique and amazing work simply because this is a luxury most companies can’t afford at the moment. But they are there and there will be more as companies who do have cash flow come to their senses and realize this is the moment they themselves need to build market share and build their brands. The only way to do that successfully is with special, unusual, visual talent to express an original vision so their freakin’ ads get noticed.

So I do believe certain market forces will continue to play out in terms of the survival of the fittest– those with names– and supply and demand. Yet I also believe things have changed forever. I just don’t see the advertising business or magazines ever coming back to the trade practices of the past, ever. It’s over. So what is the new business model going to be? 

Apple has shown with iTunes a path through the minefield that was Napster and other forms of copyright theft for the music business. People will pay– much less– to get music through a system that is easy and fast and perceived to be cool. The low cost is made up with volume but the music business is never going to be the same either. Bands make their money on tours and t-shirts these days. And they seem fine with that. 

I would like to believe there is something similar but better in terms of revenue coming down the pipe for photographers. We’ve seen the race to the bottom with stock, ending in microstock and whatever comes next. 1/10 of a penny stock? For sure, but someone will figure this out and come up with a sustainable and fair model for photographers to receive compensation for their assignment work. 

If that does not happen, the definitely we will see thousands of photographers leaving the business. After that devastation, those still standing will be back in a position of relative power. There will be less supply, more demand, and as the economy improves perhaps some of the old trade practices such as respecting copyright and licensing the work for a specific period of time will return in some form or another. Keep the faith and keep shooting great work. 

But please email me that new business model!

March 2009
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  1. David Elliot Cohen says:

    Interesting thoughts. It is of course ironic that you are giving away your commentary free-of-charge. People used to pay for written thoughts from commentators. But the barriers of entry have fallen. You can be a commentator with little or no investment, and technology makes it easy for you to offer your thoughts to the entire world.

    Of course, exactly the same thing has happened with photography… cheap, easy to use equipment plus free worldwide distribution… which is why number of photography sellers has skyrocketed while the number of photography buyers has dropped. Even worse, in the case of photography (or writing or music or any other enjoyable, creative profession) people are happy to do it for free. Even worse than that, a billion monkeys shooting digital cameras, will produce some great pictures, if only be accident.

    Whenever such an imbalance between employers and workers has occurred in the past, either workers have had to organize into unions or guilds that have the ability to withhold all work from the employers or the government has had to intervene to correct the imbalance. I don’t imagine there will be government intervention on behalf of advertising photographers, and my experience with photographers suggests that they cannot be effectively organized. So unless, as you say, we find a new path, the race to free photos is on.

  2. Bec Thomas says:

    Great article, there are alot of changes coming, it’s going to be a rough ride, but in the end we will come out of it. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, we just can’t see it yet.

  3. Ron Cowie says:

    Yes, business as we know it changing drastically.

    For me, it is better to make peace with the fact I’ll never get rich at this. It is quite liberating.
    That being said, I still need to follow market trends and have a smart business sense. I’m a fan of eating and going to Paris. Call them weaknesses.

  4. matt says:

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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